Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Fringe Entertainment

The day after the premiere of his new show, Fringe (Fox, Tuesdays, 9:00 p.m.) blogs and entertainment sites declared, "J.J. Abrams has done it again!!!" I agreed. Of course, they meant "made a great new TV show." I meant, "Took a classic TV show and another TV show or movie and added Sex and Retarded to it and hoped no one noticed." What's most irritating about Abrams isn't that his shows are bad (most of them are); it's that they're bad versions of original and good things you'd rather were left alone.

Take a look at his track record:

The Avengers + The Da Vinci Code + Sex + Retarded = Alias
The Avengers featured an incredibly hot woman and a stuffy older man doing amazing spy things around the globe. J.J. Abrams decided to make his hot woman character dress like a high-end prostitute for one-third of every episode and then evidently asked himself, "Hey, how can I make this deeply uncomfortable? I know!—I'll make the stuffy older partner her father." Sometimes he mixed it up by having her boyfriend send her to act like a prostitute with another man, while he watched. Voyeurism becomes Elektra. Then, in case you didn't find that the height of entertainment, he added a recurring plot about a mystical Italian Renaissance artist and inventor named "Rambaldi." Even someone watching the show with an ether-soaked rag stapled to his face would have known it was a Da Vinci ripoff, but of course Abrams invented an insultingly transparent fictional name that gave the audience slightly more credit than Adolf Hilter and Beinrich Bimmler gave the woman who ran their boarding house in England. Also, bear in mind that Abrams is so bad at storytelling that:
by season three, the voiceover introduction leading in to each show neared something like a twelve-minute duration;
he essentially rebooted the series three times, each version progressively dumber;
the series ended in ignominious stupidity, after hemorrhaging most of its fanbase, with a final episode that drew about a third of the viewership of its pilot.
The Prisoner + Survivor + Sex + Retarded = LOST
This one's actually a decent show, but anyone arguing for its originality is a fool. (Replace a floating balloon with a fog monster. Replace contestants' confessionals with flashbacks. Have people who probably smell like ass and are covered in sand make love and gaze longingly.) On the other hand, allegedly Abrams has the least input of all the producers, and Cuse and Lindelof keep a tight rein on his tendency to alchemically turn interesting plots to shit.

I should mention that Abrams does this in movies, too. Cloverfield should have been called The Godzilla Witch Project. And Armageddon is—I don't even want to know, to be honest. Fringe is significantly easier to chart:

The X-Files + 24 + Blade Runner + Sex + Retarded = Fringe
FBI Special Agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) is having a secret affair with FBI Special Agent John Scott (Mark "Keen Eddie" Valley). When pursuing leads on who might have poisoned an international flight to Boston, where passengers' faces started falling off, a suspect tricks Agent Scott, trapping him in an explosion which infects his body with, basically, transparent leprosy: his body begins turning into jellyfish-like material before threatening to fall apart. After Agent Dunham gets tacit encouragement from her boss, Agent Philip Broyles (Lance "Lieutenant Daniels" Reddick), she tracks down Peter Bishop (Joshua "I was on Dawson's Creek" Jackson), the feckless son of mad scientist Walter Bishop. Together, she and Bishop the Younger break Bishop the Elder (John "Denethor" Noble) out of a mental institution, install him in his old lab at Harvard and start cranking out one deus-ex-machina after another.

The only thing standing in their way is Microsoft MASSIVE DYNAMIC, a software and technology company that effectively rules the world at a remove, via economic manipulation and technological innovations. Perhaps worried that you might think a big powerful company that invents lots of cool things is, like, rad or something, they give its spokeswoman Nina Sharp (Blair "Molly Dodd" Brown) a badly CGI'd creepy Terminator-arm prosthetic and make her office a giant, space-wasting cavern of irregular white polygons. By episode three, she'll likely be living inside a giant metal pyramid and telling Agent Broyles that he's a replicant.

None of these things is especially grievous on its own, but the accumulated borrowings and their poor execution achieve a critical mass of terrible. Like The X-Files, you have two leads, Bishop Jr. and Dunham, with mixed feelings about their cynicism/faith in science and government transparency. They also have nascent but unmistakable sexual tension (an element that undermines much of Dunham's dramatic struggle to rescue her lover in the pilot).

They're commanded by a Director Skinner-esque nasty piece of work and morally ambiguous figure in Agent Broyles — who may or may not be part of a MASSIVE DYNAMIC conspiracy (delete "alien technology" from the triad of alien technology, human technology and natural human advancement, for the ground Fringe covers). And, like 24, they have to do everything on a sudden heart-stopping timetable... only there may be moles in their organization working against them! Add a ticking clock and make Joshua Jackson start smoking and stage whisper every line of dialogue, and he'd be indistinguishable from Kiefer Sutherland.

Mad scientist Dr. Walter Bishop stands out as the only really likable and non-wooden character, but even then he's still something of a plot device and caricature. As said, so far he offers little more than a deus-ex-machina factory dressed up with doddering nuttiness and an inability to focus. Geek him up, and he could be all three of The Lone Gunman morphed into one man. Animate him, and he's basically Professor Farnsworth. You half expect a future exchange to read:
Agent Dunham: But the gravity in this part of the MASSIVE DYNAMIC building is three times earth's natural gravity.
Dr. Bishop: Ohhh-ahhh...??? Hmmm, well, let me just look inside my SCIENCE BOX! (roots around in cardboard box) Urrhuh-here they are! My very own anti-gravity kneepads. OH!—and here's the brain sample I removed from Idi Amin to see if I could grow stronger by eating him after he'd eaten all his enemies. I wonder if it's still fresh.
Still, even these characterizations might not try one's patience if they unfolded naturally. Instead, we learn about them through reams of forced, expository dialogue. Despite a nearly two-hour pilot with which to introduce the main players, Fringe has an exposition-to-running-time ratio that dwarfs the competition. Much of it is comical — the most obvious example being Dunham's status as a "liason" and Broyle's indicating his contempt for her by referring to her almost exclusively as "LEEEE-AYYYYY-ZAAAHHHHHHN," with an over-the-top pronunciation short of vaudeville by only an absence of greasepaint and maybe honking a horn. (Quick way to rapidly increase your enjoyment of this show: imagine that Broyles is saying "Paula Zahn" and hates her with irrational fury.)

The actual exchanges are worse. For example (paraphrased):
Agent Broyles: I don't like you.
Agent Dunham: Is it because I led the FBI team that helped convict your friend, United States Marine Corps Colonel Name Lastname of the sexual assault of six female service members?
Agent Broyles: He was a good officer. He deserved better.
It's difficult to conceive of any boy's club or "uniform wall" that would lead any high-ranking officer to consider a chronic molester/rapist fellow officer to be anything short of a disgrace to the uniform. In a confused attempt to make Broyles seem loyal, the writers instead make him seem like an idiot. That, and the writing is awful.

Much the same happens to anyone attempting sciencey talk on the show. For example (also paraphrased):
Peter Bishop: So what exactly was it my father did for you people?
Agent Dunham: Your father was involved in a field we call "Fringe Science."
No, he wasn't, and no, we don't. Fringe science isn't a field. It's at the edge of all the other fields. That's why it's called the fringe. We can even picture it in our minds: there's a big farm growing corn, which represents, say, physics. At the edge of the corn stands a row of brambles and then a dark woods you can't see into and are terrified of as a child. This represents the fringe; as you can see, it is not in a field at all. You could say, "Your father was involved in a field we call Fucking Stupid Made Up Bullshit," and it would mean the same thing, because, again, it wouldn't be a field and would at least be authentically descriptive.

(An even better authentic description might be: taking drugs and sitting in a tank to get into the mind of someone in a coma isn't "fringe science"; it's ripping off the entire plot of The Cell. Taking your cue from Jennifer Lopez vehicles probably isn't the smartest play.)

The Peter Bishop character might be the worst off of all. Written to sound like a man who evolved into a cynic after a youth of bitter disillusionment, his cynically detached one-liners have the snarky petulance of a teenager saying, "More like snarky suckyoulance!" It wouldn't be so noticeable or so bad if he weren't used as a kind of Johnny Exposition, translating freshmen-level college science into freshmen-level high school science for the audience, for much of the show. For instance:
Dr. Bishop: (to Dunham) ...and lysergic acid diathylamide.
Peter Bishop: (also to Dunham) That's ACID, BY THE WAY.
Other classic lines include:
Bootlegging smack is normal! (Here he ironically indicates it's not. Also, "smack" is heroin and not LSD. But why argue with scientists?)
[Scientific gobbledegook] It's simple, really. Like makin taffy. (Here he ironically indicates it's not.)
For the record, I DO NOT recommend this. (Actually sincere.)
Every line feels as if it would be perfectly natural if it ended with, "Dude," and every sarcastic reply is a few clicks south on the sarcasm detector from Chandler Bing saying, "Could this science BE any more fringe???????"

Aside from the poor characterization, the heavy expository dialogue and the direct borrowings, if not thefts, the show can legitimately frighten. The teaser openings from both the pilot and the second episode unquestionably had "the hook" to them, with literally jaw-dropping gruesomeness and sexualized menace. The distinct sense of unease even carried forward through the second and third act of the second episode. Unfortunately, the beat-the-clock and deus-ex-machina format effectively undercuts a lot of tension. An audience has trouble biting nails and wondering, "How will they get out of this?!?!?" when they know the answer is, "They'll make some crazy shit up."

But where the show disappoints most is in its gutlessness. As tame as The X-Files might seem now, its creators tapped into an angst and unease hardly warranted by the era in which it debuted. The U.S. enjoyed economic prosperity, the end of the Cold War and no expensive, loathing-inducing foreign misadventures. Domestic unease existed outside the mainstream, in religious cults and right-wing militas that hardly exemplified any sort of universal zeitgeist. Yet, despite this, the show unapologetically proffered the message: Don't trust your government. Your government will harvest and exploit and murder you.

Now, here we are over a decade later, and those italicized comments could well be written on a mainstream blog and be taken absolutely seriously and without a trace of irony. Consider a sensationalized but essentially true description of the last eight years:
The son of the nation's former Intelligence Director won a contested election in a state his brother controlled, with the results rubber-stamped and legalized by men appointed to their positions by his father and his father's boss. That same man now controls a government that hides the corpses of our countrymen when they return home in boxes from a war predicated on information his intelligence agencies falsified. That war has been extremely profitable for companies that he and members of his government have close ties to or once represented. Meanwhile, as they work to annihilate the Welfare State for individual citizens in all its forms, they work harder to eliminate all regulation of business lobbies while doling out $1 trillion in welfare for powerful multinational banks.
In the face of this, Fringe's vast sinister conspiracy appears to be, "Uh, like, big corporations might be bad and, um, unaccountable?" Forget that it's a show you've seen before and seen done better. Forget that the characters evince no more than two-dimensionality while rattling off sitcom sarcasm and sci-fi expository twaddle. The most damning aspect of Fringe is that the sinister reality it dares us to entertain intimidates less than the morning paper.